PSNI Chief Simon Byrne has been strongly criticised after releasing a propaganda photograph of himself in the company of heavily-armed Crown Force gunmen on Christmas Day.
The mobster-style display of firepower took place in front of the PSNI’s heavily armoured base in the border town of Crossmaglen.
Local republicans felt the stunt was an attempt to goad them at a time when all sides in the confict have traditionally observed ceasefires.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said the message was “offensive to the local community and utterly unacceptable” and had “only served to further undermine the public confidence in the PSNI within south Armagh”.
He called for “immediate answers” from Byrne, and said the “heavily armed officers posing with the Chief Constable is reflective of the militaristic style of policing that the community in south Armagh has had to endure in recent years.”
Since taking over the top post in July, Byrne has raised questions about his capacity to lead the PSNI at a time of major political change in the north of Ireland.
Random raids, assaults and detentions of republicans have increased steadily, including several serious incidents over this Christmas period. His taste for militaristic rhetoric directed at “the enemy” [republicans] has become increasingly unhinged, including comment in September when he vowed to “have your kids” [seize the children of republicans].
After sending in riot police to attack youths and children involved in a nationalist bonfire in Belfast in August, the new PSNI chief also spoke of a need to return to “paramilitary-style policing”.
Local SDLP Councillor Pete Byrne said he has sought an “urgent meeting” with the Chief Constable.
“While many families across south Armagh were waking up, opening presents and enjoying their Christmas morning, they were hurt and offended to see a Twitter post from the PSNI Chief Constable featuring officers with heavy weaponry on show,” he said.
“This isn’t an ill-judged tweet, the wording appears to be a deliberate attempt to set Crossmaglen and south Armagh as a place apart.”
He also said he was “keen to highlight what purpose militarised barracks in Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton now serves in 2019.”
In a tweeted response to the criticism, Byrne said he had seen his Christmas Day message had “caused some emotion”, but defended his attitude.
He said the PSNI in Crossmaglen “work in unique and often difficult circumstances” and that heavily-armed PSNI patrols are the “reality in some areas”.
He added, without irony, “This is no reflection on the local community who work daily with their local police officers to create a safe community.”
Mr Murphy, the former Sinn Fein Assembly member for the area, added: “As new Chief Constable, Simon Byrne should have sought to address issues which have eroded the local community’s confidence in the PSNI in South Armagh, but this escapade has shown an intention to do anything but.
“We need a new chapter for policing in South Armagh. We need an end to fortress police stations, heavily armed officers and poor response levels.
“We need a police service that serves the interests of this community in an efficient, effective and respectful manner. This community not only deserves nothing less, but will accept nothing less.”